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Archive for Sunday, February 15, 2004

Reminder of a loved life

Memorials convey how pet was special

February 15, 2004

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Nine months passed from the time veterinarians found Leila Pninah's cancer until the day she died in August 2001, swaddled in her owner's arms, tail wagging as she gently went to sleep.

The 12-year-old cat was buried on the hill by her home in Lyons, Colo. Her owner, Sandra Laemmle, placed a large rock over the grave, mostly to keep scavengers away, but also to serve as a sort of bench.

"It's the kind of rock she would like to sit on to survey the territory," says Laemmle, an art therapist. "I sometimes just go sit there and watch the view."

It took Laemmle six months to complete the gravesite. She created a wooden memorial peace pole on which she burned the cat's name and the word "levav" in Hebrew script.

A rabbi suggested the term, which means "of or in the heart." The scriptural phrase speaks of how people see what is visible, but God sees into the heart.

"I was looking for a phrase, something to use as a meditation," Laemmle says. "Some people might say, 'Well, it's only a cat, big deal.' But this is an acknowledgment that the connection is so much deeper."

Laemmle's memorial is in the book, "Dogwood & Catnip: Living Tributes to Pets We Have Loved and Lost," (Fairview Press, $14.95) written by fellow Lyons resident Marsha Olson, a grief counselor.

She offers ideas and suggestions for enlisting the healing power of nature to help grieving pet owners working through the pain of a beloved animal's death.

Olson's book grew out of a similar one, "A Garden of Love and Healing," which she wrote about working through human loss.

"There was a demand from pet owners that their loss be recognized," Olson says. "There's a real void when it comes to people experiencing pet loss and being able to have that validated and honored."

Creating a pet's memorial garden -- whether an elaborate affair or just a small corner of the yard -- can be an immensely soothing and satisfying experience, she says.

"There's a very healing quality about nature. Those of us who are gardeners know why we're doing it," she says. "There's a reciprocal relationship we establish with the Earth. As we give to it, it gives back to us. We take a raw, barren piece of land and create a place of beauty out of it. That somehow can mirror the transformation one goes through in grief. The raw pain can be transformed."

Olson's first experience with a pet memorial garden came seven years ago when her son's dog died.

"A huge motivation for me in doing this work was seeing how often the loss of a pet is a child's introduction to death," she says. "It's so important for parents to recognize that. This even impacts them for the rest of their life. It's an opportunity for parents to show kids how to handle grief, how to talk about it, work through it."

After the dog's death, her son and she molded a cement stone, which they painted different colors, and planted two dogwood shrubs and a bleeding heart plant, which drapes the stone. The whole section of the garden dedicated to their late pet is no more than 5 feet by 3 feet, but it's a sacred part of the landscape.

"You don't have to be a gardener to do this," Olson says. A couple of plants, a small statue or a marker can be an ample reminder of a pet's life.

"Some people put in bird baths specifically because their cat liked birds," Olson says. "Or they plant catnip that attracts other kitties to their yard, and they'll see that and be reminded of how their pet played."

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